My neighbors were evicted yesterday.
I came home to find their worldly belongings—a couple of dirty sheets, a filthy pink pillow and assorted clothing—piled in a puddle outside my front door.
They previously lived crammed together in one of the tiny, windowless rooms that line our alleyway. Apparently our landlord (the same tough old lady owns a bunch of the housing around here) decided that their drunken arguments were too much to put up with. So mother, father and four kids (ranging from ages one to 12) were thrown out on the street. They were gone before I even realized it. Their bleak existence just became bleaker.
But here’s the dilemma: There’s no doubt that the mother’s relentless drinking and fighting contributed to the situation they now find themselves in. She was hard to like and even harder to help. She neglected her kids in order to sit drinking and playing cards with the neighbors. She would scream at her daughters when they forgot to cook the rice or wash the clothes, while she sat around doing nothing.
So, why should I help her?
Have you ever noticed that there’s something in our human nature that seeks to divide people on the margins, into the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor”? We easily deem “undeserving” those living in poverty who don’t seem like they’re working hard enough, those who may be alcoholics or drug users. While we put children and those we deem have simply fallen on hard times into the category of “deserving” our compassion and help. But asking whether people are “deserving” or “undeserving” of help is the wrong question. And when you ask the wrong question, you’ll get the wrong answer every single time.
Interestingly, Jesus dealt with this problem. In His time, disability and poverty were viewed as the result of sin. Much of the world today believes this way. It’s called Karma—the idea that your sins in previous lives directly impact this life. But Jesus rejected that analysis. When the disciples came across a blind man, they wanted Jesus to tell them whose sin caused his predicament. Instead, Jesus chose to pivot to the more important truth:
“‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life’ (John 9:1-3).
Jesus makes it clear that God’s work in transforming lives is more about God’s love than whether the beneficiaries are deserving or not. No one is worthy. That’s why we need God’s grace. In Matthew 25, Jesus does not categorize people based on whether they were “sinners.” Nor did He judge them by whether they had already had multiple chances. His call was simply to reach out to those whose needs are unmet and love them: “I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was unclothed. I was in prison. I was sick.”
I’ve learned to keep three principles in mind as I engage with those who might be viewed as “undeserving” in my own life and ministry. And I think they can help you, too:
Extend the Same Grace You Have for Yourself
“Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you” is beautifully applicable in this situation. After all, we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s standards for our lives. If we measured how much each of us deserve grace, forgiveness and love, you and I would both fall short.
I am not advocating ignoring sin or enabling anyone in destructive behaviors. I am passionate about transformation. But I recognize that: “There, but by the grace of God go I.” I don’t know what demons my neighbor is seeking to escape. I don’t know what trauma or abuse she has suffered at the hands of others. I don’t know her enough to judge her. Only God does. So my role is simply to love and serve, and pray for change.
Seek to Understand, Rather Than to Judge
We’re quick to label those we view as undeserving, using terms like “Welfare Queen,” and “layabouts.” And in doing so, we judge them unworthy of our love and effort. I don’t believe this attitude reflects the love of Jesus. Instead, seek to understand what happens at an individual level to a person who is demoralized, engaging in destructive behaviors, or seeking to meet their needs in unhealthy ways.
Secondly, seek to understand the systemic reasons for poverty and how people end up being marginalized and shut out of the system (and thus demoralized and engaging in destructive behavior). For those of us from privileged backgrounds, seek to understand your privilege, so you can then understand poverty better. Recognize it is much easier for someone with resources to get help with an addiction or hide the problem. This is a blind-spot for most people from affluent and educated backgrounds, but it’s absolutely crucial that we engage in this kind of hard thinking, or we will end up doing more damage.
Ask the Right Questions
The question is not whether this person is “deserving” or “undeserving.” Instead, the question is “How can I best extend God’s love to this person today?” or “What action will be the most loving and transformational in this person’s life?” These questions invite us to step away from judgment and toward transformation. These questions allow us to respond with the kind of grace Jesus first offered to us.
One night a couple of weeks ago, I heard the sound of sobbing outside my front door. I switched on the lights and opened the door to find my alcoholic neighbor lying shivering on the ground, weeping and moaning. She’d had too much to drink and was nursing a swollen eye. She’d had another argument with her husband and was settling down to sleep it off outside. I knelt down beside her, trying to avoid the filth she was lying in, and I listened to her talk about her problems for a while. She was at rock bottom and she knew it. But she couldn’t see a way out. My calling in that moment, and in every interaction with her, is simply to extend love and grace, and try to help her find a better pathway.
I know Jesus can heal her and set her free. I know when God looks at her, He sees a beloved daughter who desperately needs love, grace, forgiveness and transformation. She may not be what most folks would think of as “deserving.” And neither am I. And that makes us the perfect candidates for grace.
This article originally appeared on craiggreenfield.com. Used with permission.
Craig Greenfield is the author of Subversive Jesus: an adventure in justice, mercy and faithfulness in a broken world. He is also the founder and director of Alongsiders International, a grassroots movement for vulnerable children in Asia and Africa.